Write every story as if it was your last, whether suicide note or proof of life.
– Steve Aylett, Heart of the Original
Write every story as if it was your last, whether suicide note or proof of life.
– Steve Aylett, Heart of the Original
I wrote this story in early 2010. It’s based on a true story, inasmuch as my then-partner had told me she needed space, and I twisted those words (in perhaps an obvious way) to come up with this story.
Five and a half years later, I don’t hate this piece. But I also see now that it’s less a story and more a slice-of-life or vignette.
“I need space,” Elisa said, her eyes steadfastly locked on the ground at her feet.
Clayton reached out to touch her side but she took half a step back; not enough to escape his reach, but enough to let him know the gesture wasn’t wanted. He dropped his arm back to his side.
“Can we talk about this?”
She shook her head slightly, a sign of both refusal and exhaustion. “I don’t know what to say, what you want me to say. I need space, I need to go, it’s as simple as that.” Her eyes were still focused on the ground.
“Okay,” he forced down the emotions that were churning inside him, “I guess it’s too late for me to change your mind.” He was surprised at how well he was keeping it together, but he knew there would be weeping later.
Somewhere a klaxon started wailing.
“They’re playing my song,” she said with a weak smile. “Goodbye.”
Elisa turned and began to walk away, her lithe figure and subtle movements somehow still visible beneath the heavily-insulated astronaut suit. He stood there on the platform watching her walk away.
In the distance behind her receding figure stood the massive rocket that was going to take her from him and give her space.
To him it was an anachronism; a pointless marriage of twentieth century science fiction, twentieth century Science, and Cold War hysteria.
To her it was everything.
He watched as she reached the shuttle’s doorway, stepped inside and disappeared into the belly of the monolithic machine.
The klaxons still wailed and the gangplank he stood on began to retract. It rattled and pitched violently beneath his feet, so he finally turned and walked away.
He put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the blue expanse of sky, with its limitless potential and the promise of infinite space beyond.
How can I compete with that?
Moments later the rocket engines fired. His ears were pounded with the thunderous noise of a billion chemical reactions and his feet tingled with pins and needles as the earth trembled.
The rocket began its ascent. He didn’t turn to watch, he just kept walking away.
Elisa floated, lost in the vast expanse of nothingness, connected to the universe – and the space shuttle – by nothing more than a long, thin, polyplastic tether. Small rocks drifted past, as though carried by a light breeze, caught up in the cosmic ballet of the galaxy’s rotation.
She reached out with an insulated glove and closed her fingers around a jellybean-shaped stone.
He always loved jellybeans, she thought, as she placed the rock inside the canister that was strapped to the side of her suit.
“Ware to Liberty; I have a sample, you can reel me back in. Over.” Elisa had to force herself to speak loudly – the incalculable reaches of space tended to awe and quiet her.
She watched as the tether began to tighten and then with a small tug she was falling back towards the space shuttle.
Inside it was far easier to work. She had taken off her gloves and was holding the miniature asteroid. Elisa turned the rock over, let it go and watched as it spun freely, before grabbing it again. She thought of him once more and this time she smiled.
The database onboard was agonisingly slow; the longer she sat there waiting for it to find a match for her sample, the more she let her mind wander.
She kicked her feet beneath the workstation she was strapped to. The motion didn’t work the same as it did on Earth, but she couldn’t stop herself from fidgeting.
The database beeped.
Zero matches found for Sample 2502. Please insert a name for New Element.
Her heart stopped, and she read the words again. Her hands shook as she typed a scientific-sounding variation of Clayton’s surname into the database.
Her index finger hovered over the Enter key as she read the name again. She let her digit drop onto the button with a clack.
She looked out the small, heavily reinforced window. She could see Earth far off in the distance – a small blue and green orb hundreds of thousands of kilometres away – and she missed him.
What then do you think about the label “post-apocalyptic,” a label that’s been applied to your novel? How would you feel if someone recommended your book to a friend as a post-apocalyptic novel?
The issue that I have with “post-apocalyptic” is that it connotes a kind of egocentricity. Even though we pretend it’s very disturbing—it’s hard to think about the apocalypse!—we do it so much. Kathryn Schulz wrote a really good piece about earthquakes in the New Yorker recently where she pointed out that many of our blockbuster movies imagine the end of the world. It can’t be that disturbing if Hollywood is doing it. I don’t believe we’re disturbed by apocalyptic thinking; I think we’re comforted by it because it makes us feel important. We think, If I survived to the end of humanity—we call it the end of the world of course, but the world doesn’t really give a shit whether we’re here or not—if I survived to the end of humanity I would be the pinnacle of our species and I would be important and, yeah, it would be tough, and I’d have to drink my pee or whatever, but I would still be special. And in fact, we’re not special. You and I will just die and go to dust and be forgotten just like everybody else and the world will keep turning. The apocalyptic thinking is really just kind of an egomania or a narcissism that makes us feel more comfortable than our true insignificance. That’s what I would just tell that nice person recommending my book, like, You are dust. [laughs]
– Claire Vaye Watkins in an interview here.
There is an awful lot of writing advice out there on the internet if you go looking for it. But where most of it is about the act/process of writing, or big-picture information about plotting and shaping a story, this is one of the few pieces I’ve come across that’s actually about changing the way you think about presenting a story.
I can’t remember where I found it as it was quite a while ago, but it’s interesting piece of advice, and taking it on-board may be more difficult than you think. It’s worth trying if only to flex your writer muscles and see how it works for you and how you like it. For me, using this technique, I tend to end up with a certain sort of detached story, which I think is more to do with me than with the advice itself… but either way, this is something I try and keep in mind when writing about interactions between two people, to show some of the emotions beneath the surface as action, rather than just telling the reader what those emotions are…
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. She was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.
It’s all about forward motion. Doesn’t matter what breaks, catches fire or falls over. Get up. Eat fire. Step over debris. Keep moving.
– Warren Ellis (Though I can’t find the original link. I like to think that Warren realised he was being vaguely motivational and decided to purge the post from the internet.)
About a month ago the artist Eliza Gauger posted a series of tweets about artistic/creative Berserkers, and I finally found a term to describe my writing practise.
You need that berserker nature – you know why? Because maybe you’re not good enough… yet. Are you going to get good enough sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike? Are you going to get good enough if you can only work when your surroundings are just so? Are you going to get good enough talking about your writing?
No. You just have to do it.
Similarly, if you’re worried that story you’re working on is shit – finish it anyway*. Maybe it will be shit when you’ve finished, but you’ll have spent time developing skills that you don’t work on every time you start a story and then abandon it because something isn’t working.
*As with all writing advice, this comes with a caveat; always in moderation. If you’ve written 10k words on something and it’s not working, there could be a reason for it. But short stories? Anything you can finish in under 6k? Finish it. Just fucking finish it.